CC Issue 14 / Sport

Sporting Bucket List – Part Two

blogging v. to address an imaginary and totally fictitious audience with ridiculously private and extremely dull thoughts, often while under the delusion as if one were really interesting or writing in a real publication or something.

Yes, dear readers, I know how you have pined for a new topic to flow forth from this column – some new morsel of wisdom, adventure and intrigue to gobble up. Unfortunately, as many of you may know, I am extremely lazy – almost dangerously so. My laziness may well pose a serious threat to National Security – but that’s another matter altogether. The point is I’m lazy and this article is merely part deux of my Sporting Bucket List.

Yes, more fanciful longings and cringe-inducing embarrassment from a young man desperately clinging on to the wild hope that winning the lottery (a slightly unlikely long shot at 1 in 175,711,536) will somehow lift him out of the constant drudgery and mind-numbing dullness of every day routine. Yes, more rambling. Yes, more nonsense. But what else did you expect, dear reader?

6. The Kentucky Derby

There are not a lot of things that a white Southern male can be proud of, and I suppose getting incredibly drunk off bourbon whiskey and forcing animals to race around in a big circle really shouldn’t be one of them, but it is. Personally, I adore horse racing – deciphering the racing form, deliberating on bets, the sudden burst of adrenaline as the gates open, the utter insanity and complete absorption as the horses crash down the final straight, picking up your winnings, throwing away losing tickets in despair – I love it.

Over the years, however, I have come to realize I enjoy sporting events a lot more than most people. What I mean is that, generally speaking, most people seem to enjoy getting drunk at sporting events while I actually enjoy watching the sporting event itself. With this in mind I should probably avoid attending the Kentucky Derby. Retaining my sanity amidst a hundred thousand raving mad drunk Southerners might prove difficult at the famous Churchill Downs.

Still, the attraction holds. This is the American Dream, not reductio ad absurdum like Monday Night Football, but in its true essence, passed down from generation to generation. Of course maybe I’ve read too much Hunter S. Thompson, and maybe everyone else has too – the official Derby website even features his seminal Rolling Stone article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. Still, the decadence, and the knowledge of the decadence itself continues to attract.

The National Hunt races of Cheltenham and the Grand National, as well as the flat-racing highlight of The Royal Ascot may provide a more picturesque scenery and interesting occasion, but The Old Kentucky Derby remains the American Dionysian celebration and I would like to see it first hand. First round of Mint Juleps are on me.

7. Bullfighting at Las Ventas

OK, so I have read way too much Hunter S. Thompson, we know that much. Yet even more so I have read an unhealthy abundance of Ernest Hemingway, enough to make most able-bodied young men shudder in fear. So it should come as no surprise that bullfighting would hold a certain fascination.

Of course, a cloud of ethical issues surrounds the sport, and while I don’t expect to defend the sport with a full treatise, I would like to note a few points (Editor – a.k.a. He’s gonna go on a crazed rant; he’s foaming at the mouth!).

Ancient cultures faced death as a constant reality in war, famine, and plague. They even forced it upon themselves in times of peace, in the case of religious animal sacrifice and in bloodsport, as a reminder of the fragility of life. As contemporary First World humanity condemns horse racing, bullfighting, and hunting – I don’t think we even need to discuss animal sacrifice – we have pushed death to the realm of the virtual – video games, films, television, the internet.

We also treat war differently these days; as something to sweep under the carpet and keep hidden. I do advocate unnecessary or unfair violence, but humanity has lost the proper respect for death and consequently a proper respect for life. We stuff our faces with bleached flour and processed garbage and slurp down alcoholic pop fizzies full of caffeine and high-fructose-corn-syrup, whittling away our lives in front of television and computer screens, while we look down on bullfighting as horrific.

Like many sports, bullfighting is vastly different today than in its early “glory years.” Hemingway probably would not even watch the sport in its current format today, but I would still like to visit the aging Plazas of Spain and catch a glimpse of what attracted him so much to the sport – not to mention to get the opportunity to munch on tapas at a bullfighting bar, watch a Plaza full of white hankies waving in the air, and bask in the glory of all those incredible bushy Spanish mustaches.

8. College Football Game in the Dirty South

Recently I overheard a German tourist, a punter in the bar I work at, telling his friend how he would like to attend an NFL game. His female friend questioned why he did not want to catch a college game, probably not knowing the regular season had already finished. “Well the NFL is more popular and the crowds are bigger.” My conscience compelled me and I had to interrupt their conversation to educate this ignorant Teuton.

I was born in Columbia, South Carolina and therefore, whether I like it or not, have college football in my blood. Granted I have no real ties to the area as I left the South Carolina capital at one years old, and granted my father comes from North Carolina where they hardly even know of the sport. Still I grew up looking through magazines and books with black and white pictures of Herschel Walker, George Rogers and Bo Jackson – Southern giants who excelled both on the collegiate and professional stages.

The iconic colors and mascots were also attractive to my young mind – the intimidating Bulldog of Georgia, the illicit Gamecocks of South Carolina, the ominous Crimson Tide of Alabama, and threatening Gators of Florida. Compare that with the West Coast compatriots of the Oregon Ducks, California Golden Bears, the Standford Cardinal. Even the football giants of the Midwest – the Sooners, the Buckeyes, the Cornhuskers, the Badgers – don’t carry the same latent violence of the South Eastern teams.

As a Southern born gentleman it pains me that the only college football game I have attended was The Citadel against Furman over twenty one years ago. While the SEC have become something of a bully conference in recent years – prime example was the decision to invite Alabama to play LSU in the Championship game this year despite the fact that LSU had already beaten the Crimson Tide in their own backyard during the regular season – there is a very good reason it’s in a position to do so: America adores college football with no end of passion and the Dirty South remains the epitome of collegiate football.

Just look at the stadium capacities: Florida – 88,548, Georgia – 93,746, Tennessee – 102,455, Alabama – 101,821, LSU – 92,542, Auburn – 87,451. And that’s only a handful of teams in the SEC Conference. Looking at the rest of the nation, Michigan holds 109,901, Penn State 106, 572, Ohio State 102,329, and the Texas Longhorns 101, 821. In comparison the NFL’s largest stadium is the 82,566 capacity home of the New York Giants and New York Jets.

On the basis of sheer numbers alone, college football is America’s game. Ethically the game has obviously been blown way out of proportion for the amateur stage – millions of dollars exchanged between corporate sponsors, television corporations, clothing companies, bookies, university coffers and coaches bank accounts – just about everyone but the football players themselves. In a sense college football mirrors the hypocrisy of the American Dream – the idealistic face value of the amateur for-the-love-of-the game “student-athlete” and the shadowy reality of greed, corruption and scandal. Something though must remain from the truly amateur days of college football, something worth experiencing.

When LSU defeated Alabama at Bryant Stadium earlier this year I laughed as the television cameras panned to grown men, my own age, dressed to the nines in Crimson, balling their eyes out. Now sporting events have brought me to tears before and my weekend can still be ruined on the turn of a result, but I have never, ever cried for anything like those men cried at the defeat of their college football team. Possibly this is merely a reaction to an excess of cheap beer, whisky and Southern barbeque, but I would like to wager it had to do with something on the field and that it would be worth checking out before I die…or before it dies…

9. Eden Gardens, Kolkata

I would love to snack on cucumber sandwiches at Lord’s or bask in the summer sunshine at The Oval, and I certainly would not complain about visiting the other Old Trafford, but when it comes to cricket one cannot ignore the passion India carries for the sport.

Melbourne Cricket Ground might boast the largest capacity stadium for the sport, but Eden Gardens remains cricket’s Coliseum. Supports have rioted there on a number occasions – when star players are not played, when the national team does poorly, and most recently in 1999 when the legendary Sachin Tendulkar bumped into Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar and was run out – but nowadays the hostility is restricted to noises levels rather than burning the stands.

The ground itself was established in 1864 and hosted its first Test match in 1934 in a famous series against England. South Africa made an emotional return to international Test cricket in 1991 at Eden Gardens. Yet the most famous match remains the second Test against Australia in 2001 when India recovered after giving up 445 runs in the first innings. VVS Laxman put 281 on the board in the second innings as India scored 657 runs to end the Australian’s streak of seventeen straight wins.

At a time when Indian test cricket flounders and other sports – football and Formula 1 – threaten cricket’s hegemony I would still enjoy joining ten of thousands of Kolkatan office workers as they play hooky, lounge around all day and gobble down cucumber sandwiches – with a little chutney added, of course, to spice things up.

10. Isle of Man Tourist Trophy

Motorcycles are bad ass. You don’t need me tell you that, just look at pop culture – Sons of Anarchy, Dice Magazine, the Nineties video game Road Rash. OK, so I am certainly not immune to the badass nature of motorcycles. Yet he most popular form of motorcycle racing, MotoGP, can, at times, be a bit dull. Sure, I watch the sport, but usually when I am cooking or doing the washing up – yes, I wear the dress in the relationship. I would never pay to go see a MotoGP race (with the exception of the Grand Prix at Laguna Seca).

I would, however, go to the Isle of Man and watch as the most insane motorcyclists in the world race around the island’s frighteningly narrow country roads. Covering over 60 kilometers, 200 bends and an altitude jump of almost 400 meters, the Snaefell Mountain Course is a true beast.

The island itself has an interesting history. Located in the Irish Sea, equidistantly between Ireland and Great Britain, the Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom – rather strange for a territory that uses the pound as currency and claims “God Save the Queen” as the royal anthem. The Isle also marks the birthplace of The Bee Gees. But I digress…

The reason the island holds any real interest to me is the annual Tourist Trophy. Imagine the most picturesque and scenic British country side – stonewall barriers, wood and wire mesh fences, quaint villages with a rustic mixture of medieval castles and pre-Edwardian limestone houses. Now imagine a pack of motorcycles whipping around this setting at average speeds of over 200 km/h. MotoGP circuit racing this is not.

Neither are the contestants the typical MotoGP mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French. Prior to the commercial rise of motorcycle racing the top Grand Prix racers and others from the Continent would participate in the Isle of Man TT. Nowadays, participation is almost exclusively limited to natives of the British Isles.

The quintessential road racing family is that of the Dunlop’s. Joey Dunlop holds the record for total number of Isle of Man TT wins at 26. He died at age 48 racing in Estonia. His brother, Robert, won on six occassions and claimed 14 podiums. He also died at age 48 at the North West 200 in Northern Ireland. Robert had three sons, two of which also race motorcycles. The elder William has one TT podium to his name while the younger brother Michael has two wins and seven podiums. Michael also won a race at the North West 200 in 2008 after his father had already died in a practice session.

The insanity, tragedy and the sheer compelling nature of the Dunlop history could, and at some point will, have its own book. The Isle of Man TT is not, however, about one family name. It is about one family though. Everyone who participates and attends is part of the family of motorcycle enthusiasts. Families of the riders all know each other and the camaraderie is a rarity in twenty first century sports. As you can probably guess from the brief synopsis of the Dunlops, danger is a constant and tragedy often just around the next corner in the Isle of Mann TT – and I have not even mentioned “Mad Sunday” when the course is open to the public – but of course wherever there are madmen willing to push themselves to the edge, an equally eager audience will be there to watch them. Count me in. 

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